A ROMAN MARBLE TABLETOP
BY ANNAMARIA GIUSTI
THE INLAY TECHNIQUES
The two inlay techniques used in working with polychrome stones, intarsio (inlay) and commesso (Florentine mosaic), coexist handsomely in this table, whose decorative work consists of an inlaid frieze on four sides, which surrounds a wide rectangular area with ornamental commesso work. At the center, there is an alabaster oval surrounded by a cartouche, from which radiates a pattern of eight cartouches, forming a complex yet rigorous design. In the area of the frieze, the work is done as intarsio, an ancient technique revived in Rome during the sixteenth century: on a white marble slab, which constitutes the ground, casse (cavities) are carved with a chisel. The areas intended to receive the sections of polychrome stones are cut to match the shapes of the cavities, using a metal saw and a humidified abrasive powder. The white profiles (“cigli” or eyelashes, as they were named by the stonemasons of the time) form the design of the frieze’s frame and outline the polychrome sections.
In the central area the white marble is not visible, but forms the support for sections of multicolored stones that make up the commesso. This term refers to a type of mosaic made up of stones cut into sections of irregularly shaped profiles and sizes, perfectly composed and fitted together, glued to an invisible support.
Both techniques were practiced in ancient Rome, where they were called opus interrasile and opus sectile, and used for wall paneling and flooring. These techniques were revived in the sixteenth century, and used in the construction of architectural stone wall facings and tables of multicolored stones. Both inlaid marble architectural surfaces and marble furnishings in the sixteenth century took their raw materials from antique Rome, where the precious stones used for artifacts came from different areas of Rome’s vast empire. Even our tabletop includes varied and rare “archaeological” stones, obtained from the impressive architectural ruins of ancient Rome.
THE MATERIALS USED
The main stones used in our table top are:
-Giallo antico, which was called Marmor numidicum in Roman times, when it was brought from Numidia, a North African region which corresponds to contemporary Tunisia- it forms both the background for the border frieze and the strapwork composition within the commesso field
-Africano, which fills the interior and the exterior of the eight cartouches that branch from the central one. . In Roman times it was called Marmor luculleum, and alludes to the person who, in the first century BC, introduced its use in Rome: the consul Lucius Licinius Lucullus, who brought back large blocks of this stone from wars in Asia Minor from the ancient Greek city of Teos, in the Izmir region, using them to decorate his Roman villa
-Alabastro cotognino, used for the central oval and the pairs of rhomboids in the frieze on the long sides of the table top, which originated in Egypt
-Alabastro fiorito , probably of eastern origin, used for the four ovals around the central cartouche, and one in the middle of the two trefoils of the frieze on the short sides of the table
-Alabastro Sardonico, in the two central trefoils of the long sides , so-called because of its similarity in appearance to the Sardonix Agate,
- The alabaster in white with pink shades in the curls of the two cartouches above the central oval and nearest the outer border is possibly Alabastro rose Djebel Oust, .
-Verde antico, Marmor Thessalicum which came to Rome from Thessaly in Greece, used as the ground surrounding the central oval
-Bianco e nero antico, used for the shields of the long sides
-Breccia Corallina from Asia Minor, used in the angular cartouches of the corners
-In the trefoil on the four sides two types of brecciated stones alternate. The one from Settebasi has a dull background with long striations, known by the Romans as Marmor scyrium, brought from Skyros in Greece. The other, used in trefoils and in lozenges of the short sides, includes fragments that stand out from a pinkish-brown background, and is a Breccia traccagnina, perhaps recognizable as a type called “degli Angeli”.
Lastly, a Peperino slab, perhaps added at a later time for reinforcement, is installed beneath the thin white marble slab that forms the table top, confirming the Roman origin of the table with certainty, since Peperino is a volcanic stone locally used in Rome, precisely for the supporting use seen here.
THE ATTRIBUTION TO ROME
The primary evidence that this beautiful table top was created in Rome is the choice of materials and the style of composition, that was shared although with many imaginative variations, among Roman tables produced intensively from the middle to the end of the sixteenth century. Table tops of polychrome marbles made in Rome are characterized, as in our case, by the prominence given to a central panel and the choice of non-figurative decoration, often inspired by ancient classical repertoire of scrolls and racemes used by opus sectile in vogue in imperial Rome. Probably the predilection for nonfigurative decorations also resulted from the fact that the first appearances of polychrome inlay in sixteenth-century Rome were in church wall paneling, by architects such as Vignola, Dosio, della Porta, etc., who designed the tables as well. One could in fact say that an iconic inlay, preferred as an architectural style, “descended” from the walls onto the table tops, then in the second half of the century spread throughout Rome, and from there elsewhere, as highly prized furnishings in the houses of the great noble families and the Princes of the Church.
Among the latter was Ferdinando de Medici, who before succeeding his brother Francesco on the throne of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1587, resided for a long time in Rome, after his appointment as cardinal occurred in 1563. During the time he spent in Rome, Ferdinando already showed a passion for the art of multicolored stones, which would lead him in 1588 to establish the “Galleria dei Lavori”, or the grand-ducal workshop in Florence, which worked for centuries exclusively for the Florence court, and was dedicated to the excellence of commesso, also named Florentine Mosaic.
PROTOTYPE FOR A MEDICI TABLE TOP?
A closely related table top has been located, at least from the mid-seventeenth century, in the Medici Villa at Poggio Imperiale (first published by A. Giusti in La Cappella dei Principi e le pietre dure a Firenze, Milano 1979, cat.106, p.294). Of somewhat smaller size (137 x 104 cm), the table top in Florence is made to almost precisely the same design layout as the table we are examining, with the same contoured frieze and the intertwining of scrolls that branch off from the central cartouche, which likewise includes an oval in Alabastro cotognino. However, it also differs significantly, due to the presence in the eight scrolls of racemes, flowers and military trophies, inlaid into a ground of nero Belgico ( or Belgium black) marble. These elements date the Poggio Imperiale table top to a slighty later period than the prototype offered here, where figurative subjects have not yet been included. The military trophies, as well as the flowers with curling tendrils, are themes that became part of the decorative repertoire of tables made in Rome after 1580; the same is to be said for the Belgium black marble, at the time called 'Black of Flanders', which appears frequently in the tables as a background to the commesso, in both Rome and Florence, in the two last decades of the sixteenth century. The Poggio Imperiale table top also includes individual flowers within four cartouches, which seem to match the nascent natural interest that would dominate the Florentine commesso during the time of Ferdinando I de Medici. One may perhaps assume that they have been inserted to please the taste of the client, or that their presence in Ferdinando’s table was the starting point for “importing” the floral theme to Florence, where the most extraordinary development of this style of work took place. The question is not easy to answer, given the close proximity between the Roman and Florentine inlays in the last quarter of the sixteenth century, connected by a web of connections and similarities difficult to untangle.
CRAFTSMEN IN MARBLES
The difficulty in establishing the exact history of these tables persists, preventing us from connecting the facts about the tables in Rome to the names of the craftsmen in the documents handed down to us. The absence of chronological references that can confirm these dates is also an issue. In Rome there was a convergence of craftsmen from various places who specialized in polychrome inlay in marbles, most notably the Frenchman Jean Meynard, known as the “master of the tables”, but whose work has not so far been identified with certainty. As an illustration of the connections mentioned above, quite a few Florentines were also active in Rome, like Francesco Baronio and Ludovico da Fiesole, active in the 1560s for the papal court. The identity of the second most highly regarded creator is almost certainly “Ludovico delle tavole”, apparently named for his specialty in table tops, who in 1564 was working in Rome for Cardinal Giovanni Ricci from Montepulciano, a collector of inlaid tables, intimate of the Medici and of Ferdinando in particular. Could Ludovico possibly be the author of our table, admired by Ferdinando who wished to have a replica, but one which varied slightly in decor and in the use of stones? We can only propose this idea hypothetically: there is no doubt, however, that the author of our table and of its original and sinuous interweaving of cartouches known as “strapwork” had attracted the attention and admiration of Ferdinando de Medici, if a table derived from the prototype is located in Florence in the grand ducal collections.
The use of a single design for more than one table, differing only in materials and minor aspects of the layout, was a practice seen several times in Roman workshops. The same relationship can be observed, for example, in two large, almost identical, tables from the 1580’s now located in the UK, at Powis Castle and Charlecote Park ( see S. Jervis & D. Dodd, Roman Splendour. English Arcadia, London 2015, figs. 34 and 35). Two further tables, made with matching designs, and dating perhaps to the next decade, are the work of a Florentine artist active in Rome, who (in the only case known so far) added his signature on the edge of the table top located now in All Souls College, Oxford (illustrated Jervis op. cit., p. 45), closely related to a table top sold recently at Christie’s New York, 13 April 2016, lot 8 . Pietro Carli, who signed the table in Oxford, is called “the Florentine”, and is perhaps identical with the “Pietro fiorentino” who in 1569 was working as an assistant carver in the laboratory of Ferdinando de Medici, in his Roman residence at Palazzo Firenze.
Lastly, in the Medici collections there is another table top, dating to the time of Grand Duke Ferdinando, previously in the Villa Medici Petraia and today in the Opificio Museum, which is a variation on a tabletop I believe to be Roman work, now in the Museum of the Synagogue in Rome (illustrated in A. Giusti, Pietre Dure: Hardstone in Furniture and Decorations, London, 1992, p. 57, fig. 33). In these two tabletops the new naturalistic themes of flowers in vases, and those with military trophies already in vogue for some time, fit into a similar lattice of strapwork, as with the design of our table and that of the Poggio Imperiale table. It is a very uncommon compositional scheme, known to me only in these four tables, and it can be assumed that the Synagogue Museum table was purchased from the same Roman workshop which attracted the attention and admiration of the demanding Ferdinando de Medici.
Translated from the Italian, July 2017
Annamaria Giusti is the former Director of Florence's Opificio delle Pietre Dure, an institution which grew out of the Galleria dei Lavori founded in 1588 by Duke Ferdinando I de' Medici. She is a leading authority on hardstones and is the author of numerous books and articles on the subject.